Dissecting the Role of GABA Neurons in the VTA versus SNr in Opioid Reward

J Neurosci. 2020 Nov 11;40(46):8853-8869. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0988-20.2020. Epub 2020 Oct 12.


Opioid reward has traditionally been thought to be mediated by GABA-induced disinhibition of dopamine (DA) neurons in the VTA. However, direct behavioral evidence supporting this hypothesis is still lacking. In this study, we found that the μ opioid receptor (MOR) gene, Oprm1, is highly expressed in GABA neurons, with ∼50% of GABA neurons in the substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNr), ∼30% in the VTA, and ∼70% in the tail of the VTA (also called the rostromedial tegmental nucleus) in male rats. No Oprm1 mRNA was detected in midbrain DA neurons. We then found that optogenetic inhibition of VTA DA neurons reduced intravenous heroin self-administration, whereas activation of these neurons produced robust optical intracranial self-stimulation in DAT-Cre mice, supporting an important role of DA neurons in opioid reward. Unexpectedly, pharmacological blockade of MORs in the SNr was more effective than in the VTA in reducing heroin reward. Optogenetic activation of VTA GABA neurons caused place aversion and inhibited cocaine, but not heroin, self-administration, whereas optogenetic activation of SNr GABA neurons caused a robust increase in heroin self-administration with an extinction pattern, suggesting a compensatory response in drug intake due to reduced heroin reward. In addition, activation of SNr GABA neurons attenuated heroin-primed, but not cue-induced, reinstatement of drug-seeking behavior, whereas inhibition of SNr GABA neurons produced optical intracranial self-stimulation and place preference. Together, these findings suggest that MORs on GABA neurons in the SNr play more important roles in opioid reward and relapse than MORs on VTA GABA neurons.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Opioid reward has long been believed to be mediated by inhibition of GABA interneurons in the VTA that subsequently leads to disinhibition of DA neurons. In this study, we found that more μ opioid receptors (MORs) are expressed in GABA neurons in the neighboring SNr than in the VTA, and that pharmacological blockade of MORs in the SNr is more effective in reducing heroin reward than blockade of MORs in the VTA. Furthermore, optogenetic activation of VTA GABA neurons inhibited cocaine, but not heroin, self-administration, whereas activation of SNr GABA neurons inhibited heroin reward and relapse. These findings suggest that opioid reward is more likely mediated by stimulation of MORs in GABA afferents from other brain regions than in VTA GABA neurons.

Keywords: GABA; VTA; heroin; reward; substantia nigra pars reticulata; μ opioid receptor.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cues
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / drug effects
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Extinction, Psychological
  • Female
  • GABAergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Heroin / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Mesencephalon / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Narcotics / pharmacology*
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Optogenetics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / biosynthesis
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / genetics
  • Reward*
  • Self Administration
  • Substantia Nigra / physiology*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / physiology*


  • Narcotics
  • Oprm1 protein, rat
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Heroin